HIST 450

Prof. David Campion

Victoria Embankment, London c.1900



WHETHER it is the beloved characters of Charles Dickens, the deductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes, heroic tales of high adventure at the remotest corners of the empire, or the unspeakable crimes of Jack the Ripper, some of the most enduring images of the Victorians in the popular imagination of Americans have come from films. Some of these films are of average quality and imperfect in their historical accuracy, but many are excellent and effectively recreate the environment and compelling issues that people living in Victorian and Edwardian Britain and its empire faced at different moments in their history. And since films are the media through which much of the general public gain their impressions of the history of this period, they are worthy of consideration by historians for that reason alone.

Below is a selection of films useful for complementing our study of the history and culture of Victorian Britain and the British Empire. Most of these films can be obtained at Watzek Library. You can also find many of them on Netflix.

Some information courtesy of Internet Movie Database. Used with permission

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)
The Elephant Man (1980)
The Good Soldier (1981)
The Shooting Party (1985)
The Dead (1987)
Carrington (1995)
Mrs. Brown (1997)
Wilde (1997)
Topsy-Turvy (2000)
From Hell (2001)
The Lost Prince (2005)
Creation (2009)
The Young Victoria (2009)
Suffragette (2015)
Gunga Din (1939)
Four Feathers (1939)
Zulu (1964)
Khartoum (1966)
The Man Who Would be King (1974)
Conduct Unbecoming (1975)
The Chess Players (1977)
Zulu Dawn (1979)
Breaker Morant (1980)
The Far Pavilions (1984)
Mountains of the Moon (1990)
Rhodes (1996)
Yapian Zhanzheng (1997)
The Rising (2005)
River Queen (2005)


Director: Jean-Marc Vallée, 2009

This lavish costume drama focuses on the turbulent and lonely years of Queen Victoria's childhood, her accession to the throne when she was eighteen years old, and the uncertain beginning of her long reign. Her eventual success as a monarch was nurtured through two crucial relationships: her engagement and marriage to her German cousin Albert, the prince-consort, and the political mentoring provided by her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne.

© Sony Pictures


Director: Tony Richardson, 1968

This film chronicles the events that led to British involvement in the Crimean War against Russia culminating in the siege of Sevastopol and the fierce Battle of Balaclava in October 1854. The climax is the heroic but doomed charge of British cavalrymen ordered to advance against well-defended Russian artillery. Immortalized in the epic poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the Light Brigade's destruction owed primarily to the jealousy, infighting, and gross incompetence of its aristocratic commanders.



Director: Xie Jin, 1997

This Chinese epic tells the story of the 1840-41 war between Britain and the declining Qing dynasty that resulted in the forced opening of Chinese markets to the opium trade and the establishment of the British colony of Hong Kong. Yapian Zhanzheng received enthusiastic support from the Beijing authorities and was the most expensive Chinese film ever made at the time of production. It was released in 1997 to coincide with the handover of Hong Kong.

© Araba Films


Director: George Stevens, 1939

This classic film, starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks jr, was one of the very first Hollywood depictions of India. Set in the nineteenth century, three British soldiers and a native waterbearer must stop a secret revival of the murderous "Thuggee" cult before it can spread across the land. The film is based very loosely on Rudyard Kipling's 1892 ballad of the same name (though it is more like The Three Musketeers) and is interesting for its stereotypes as much as for its story.

© RKO Pictures


Director: Satyajit Ray, 1977

In 1856, officials of the East India Company move to consolidate their hold over North India by annexing the wealthy kingdom of Awadh. The chief minister to the Nawab attempts to warn his ruler and local landlords of the impending danger but they ignore him and instead indulge their obsession with playing chess. The game becomes a metaphor for the larger game of politics played by the British as they maneuver to capture Awadh's king. Based on the 1924 short story by Premchand.

© Shemaroo


Director: Ketan Mehta, 2005

This Bollywood epic is the first major film to focus on the 1857 Indian Rebellion—or "Mutiny" as it is usually referred to in British history. The story follows the rebel leader Mangal Pandey, an Indian sepoy in the service of the East India Company, and his friendship with a British officer. Pandey was a real figure but one about whom little is known. Filming began in 2003 and the opening scene was launched by Charles, Prince of Wales, during an official royal visit to India.

© Yash Raj Films


Director: David Lynch, 1980

This gothic drama gives a moving portrayal of John Merrick, the grotesquely deformed Victorian-era man better known as "The Elephant Man". Inarticulate and abused, Merrick ekes out a miserable living as a sideshow freak until a dedicated London doctor, Frederick Treves, rescues him from his former life and offers him an existence with dignity and acknowlegement of his humanity. A well-rendered view of the Victorian medical community.

© Paramount


Director: Bob Rafelson, 1990

This film traces the friendship between Victorian explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke that broke down during their 1856 expedition to find the source of the Nile, a route that took them through East Africa from Zanzibar to the shores of Lake Victoria. Based on the 1982 biographical novel by William Harrison and the travel diaries of Burton and Speke.

© Artisan Entertainment


Director: Jon Amiel, 2009

Charles Darwin, a brilliant scientist and devoted family man, struggles to come to terms with the devastating loss of his eldest daughter, Annie. Worried that his path-breaking theory of evolution might alienate his deeply religious wife and endanger their marriage, Darwin had procrastinated completing his manuscript. Yet the memory of his inquisitive, intelligent and highly logical daughter spurs him to complete Origin of Species and send it off for publication.

© BBC Films


Director: John Madden, 1997

This film examines at the relationship between Queen Victoria and John Brown, a Scottish commoner who, though a servant, became her closest friend and confidant. As such, he proved the catalyst to bring her back into public life and out of her private mourning for the late Prince Albert, who had died in 1861.

© Miramax


Director: Vincent Ward, 2005

A lavishly filmed and intimate story set in New Zealand in the 1860s during the war between British settlers and the Maori tribes resisting the colonization of their lands. At the furthest outpost, a young Irish woman's life is torn apart when her son is taken from her and brought upriver by his Maori grandfather. Unsure whether or not her son is even alive she continues her search for seven years and is eventually forced to choose sides in this war of empire.

© Twentieth Century Fox


Director: Peter Duffell, 1984

Based on the bestselling 1978 novel by M.M. Kaye, this miniseries is an epic of high adventure in colonial India revolving around the romance between Anjuli, a half-caste Indian princess, and Ash, a British officer raised in India. The Far Pavilions drew upon and helped perpetuate a popular sense of "Raj nostalgia" in the early 1980s. As such, it offers a lavish, entertaining, but highly romanticized vision of exotic India under British rule.

© Acorn Media


Director: Basil Deardon, 1966

This Hollywood epic recounts the ill-fated struggle in 1885 of General Charles Gordon and his British-Egyptian regiment to hold the Sudanese city of Khartoum in the face of an attack by the forces of the Mahdi, a charismatic religious leader bent on the expulsion of the British. Gordon's Christian zeal and stubbornness meet their match against the messianic goal of the Mahdi to wage a holy war against the foreign infidels.



Director: John Huston, 1975

This adaptation of the famous 1888 novella by Rudyard Kipling tells the story of Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, two ex-soldiers roaming through British India. They decide that the country is too small for them, so they trek beyond the Northwest frontier to "Kafiristan" in order to become kings in their own right. Kipling appears briefly as a character in his own fictional tale.

© Warner Home Video


Director: Michael Anderson, 1975

The plot revolves arounds a scandal in a British regiment stationed in India in the 1870s. Lt. Drake is from a middle-class background and is eager to advance himself by making the right impression. Lt. Millington, the son of a general, is not keen on army life and desires to get out as soon as he possibly can. When the widow of the regiment's most honored hero is assaulted, Drake must defend Millington from the charges in an unusual court-martial. Based on the 1969 play by Barry England.

© Crown Films


Directors: Albert and Allen Hughes, 2001

A stylish and dark thriller based on the infamous Whitechapel murders of 1888 that terrorized the residents of East London and baffled police. This is the most recent among many popular films about "Jack the Ripper" and provides an artful recreation of crime, poverty, and survival in the slums of Victorian Britain. The film's title "From Hell" refers to the return address on one of the notes left by the Ripper. Based on the 1999 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

© Fox Searchlight


Director: Douglas Hickox, 1979

This epic recounts the Battle of Isandhlwana fought on 22 January 1879 in Natal, South Africa. In the course of the fighting about 1,200 British soldiers were massacred by a force of over 20,000 Zulu warriors and the regimental colors were lost. Isandhlwana was the first engagement of the Anglo-Zulu War and stands as one of the most shocking defeats in British military history. Zulu Dawn was written by Cy Enfield as a prequel to his more successful film Zulu released fifteen years earlier.

© Tango Entertainment


Director: Cy Endfield, 1964

In 1879 the British Army suffered one of its worst defeats when Zulu forces massacred 1,500 of its troops at Isandhlwana in South Africa. A short time after the main battle a Zulu force numbering in excess of 4000 warriors advanced on a British supply post at "Rorke's Drift" guarded by 139 Welsh infantrymen. This film was made in the 1960s at a time when Britain's colonial control over Africa was rapidly disintegrating.



Director: Zoltan Korda, 1939

A British army officer who resigns his commission on the eve of his unit's embarkation on a mission against Sudanese rebels seeks to redeem his cowardice by secretly aiding his former comrades disguised as an Arab. When his unit is overwhelmed and captured by the rebels, the hero finds an opportunity to return the “feathers” of cowardice sent to him by his former comrades by freeing them.



Director: John Huston, 1987

An adaptation of one of the great short stories of James Joyce. The plot revolves around a Christmas dinner at the house of two spinster musician sisters and their niece in turn-of-the-century Ireland, attended by friends and family. Among the visiting attendees are the sisters' nephew Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta. The evening's reminiscences bring up melancholy memories for Gretta concerning her first, long-lost love when she was a girl in rural Galway.

© Vestron


Director: Mike Leigh, 2000

The legendary musical duo Gilbert and Sullivan are at a crossroads in their careers. Having scored numerous hits like The Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore, they are mired in a creative dry spell. The plot revolves around the inspiration for their comic opera The Mikado. Gilbert & Sullivan operettas were extraordinarily popular among the very same Victorian society that they satirized. Considered by many to be quinessentially English, they remain beloved by audiences worldwide.

© USA Films


Director: Robert Hamer, 1949

Set in Victorian England, this film remains the most popular of the postwar comedies produced at Ealing Green Studios. Louis D'Ascoyne is the would-be Duke of Chalfont whose mother was spurned by her noble family for marrying an Italian singer for love. Louis resolves to avenge his mother by murdering the relatives ahead of him in line for the dukedom, all of whom are played by Alec Guinness.

© Anchor Bay Entertainment


Director: David Drury, 1996

This lavish miniseries tells the story of Cecil Rhodes, the Victorian entrepreneur and champion of empire who, in the late nineteenth century, became one of the wealthiest men in the world. The series chronicles Rhodes' arrival in South Africa as a teenager, his rise to power through the acquisition of a vast gold and diamond fortune, his colonial ambitions for the British Empire in Africa, and his influence in precipitating the Boer War.



Director: Brian Gilbert, 1997

An intimate portrayal of the life of poet, playwright, and novelist Oscar Wilde. The self-realization of his homosexuality caused Wilde enormous torment as he juggled marriage and fatherhood with his obsessive love for Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde refused to flee the country when charged with "gross indecency" and was sentenced to two years hard labor. This film juxtaposes the genius of Wilde against the intolerance and hypocrisy of late Victorian Britain

© Columbia/TriStar


Director: Bruce Beresford, 1980

The true story of three Australian army officers serving in the Bushveldt Carbiniers, a unit of the British forces fighting in the Boer War, who were court-martialed by the British South African High Command for alleged atrocities. To this day many Australians claim the men were scapegoats in an unpopular war. This courtroom drama reveals well the growing tensions between Britain and her imperial dominions. Based on the 1979 play by Australian Kenneth Ross.

© Fox Lorber


Director: Sarah Gavron, 2015

Maud Watts, a young laundress from London, becomes involved with the Suffragettes, also called the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), a movement around the turn of the twentieth century that fought to achieve votes for women. Excluded from the established political system, the Suffragettes turned to dramatic and, at times, violent tactics to make their voices heard.

© Pathé


Director: Christopher Hampton, 1995

This film recreates the lives of the Bloomsbury group of intellectuals and artists in post-Victorian England, as seen through the relationship between the painter Dora Carrington and writer Lytton Strachey. Carrington will not give herself to any of the men in her life (including her husband)—at least not emotionally. Instead, she has found her soulmate in Strachey, a homosexual who, in fact, is infatuated with Carrington's husband.



Director: Kevin Billington, 1981

In the decade before the First World War, two wealthy and attractive upper class couples—one English, one American—meet at a German spa and forge an immediate bond. Through nine seasons at the spa, the four come to share with each other their same tastes, desires, and elegantly perfect Edwardian lives. Over time, however, it becomes clear just how far short of perfection their lives really are. Based on the 1915 semi-autobiographical novel by Ford Madox Ford.

© Acorn Media


Director: Alan Bridges, 1985

In the summer of 1913 a small group of lords and ladies gathers at the country estate of Sir Randolph Nettleby for a shooting party. A code of aristocratic propriety governs every aspect of the event—including speech, dress, dining, interaction with the estate's tenants, courtship, shooting, and even adultery. An accurate and nuanced portrayal of a way of life that on the eve of the First World War was already in the midst of an irreversible decline.

© Jef Films


Director: Stephen Poliakoff, 2003

The heartbreaking true story of Prince John, youngest child of King George V and Queen Mary. His short and sad life spanned from the pomp of the Edwardian court through the turmoil of the First World War. A loving, insightful, and humorous child, John suffered from epilepsy and autistic-like learning difficulties and was diagnosed as an "imbecile". An embarrassment to his image-conscious family, he was isolated from public view in one of the royal estates until his premature death.

© BBC Films

Created by campion@lclark.edu | Updated February 2016